words: Marla Cantrell
The last two weeks of April 2017 were marked by mild temperatures, a few foggy mornings, and eight days of thunderstorms. None of that was remarkable for spring in Arkansas, and neither was the fact that Brian Sims, an offensive line coach for Greenwood High School’s football team, had come down with another case of poison ivy.
Every year, it seemed, he battled a bout with poison ivy, a vine he was particularly allergic to, and every year he ended up with blisters that often formed a streak across the affected skin.
So, when the rash appeared, both Brian and his wife, Belinda, went through their regular paces. When home remedies didn’t work, they sought medical care. Brian was given medication to combat his symptoms and an antibiotic, but this time they weren’t working.
On April 28, Brian’s dermatologist, Dr. Garrett Nelson of Johnston Dermatology Clinic, ordered a biopsy to see what was going on, a test that proved crucial in the days to come.
April 29 was another stormy day, thunder roaring and lightning tearing through the gray sky. Belinda felt a bit like the storm herself, her emotions sharp and dark and troubled. Something, she knew in her heart, was terribly wrong.
Typically, Brian cooked dinner, but that Saturday, he took a nap instead, and then a long bath. When Belinda called him to eat, he took a few obligatory bites and stopped. And that’s when Belinda noticed that the blisters, which had previously been on his arms and legs and the trunk of his body, had traveled to his neck.
An alarm went off inside Belinda, and she and Brian headed to the Emergency Room. It seemed to her as if Brian’s body was being overtaken by the blisters that continued to multiply. Skin was peeling, raw wounds were opening, and Brian’s pain skyrocketed.
He looked like a burn victim.
While the medical staff worked tirelessly, Belinda prayed. Her husband, just over six feet tall, and so strong he seemed made of iron, appeared to be getting worse. In the first days of May, Brian was transported on a small plane first to OSU Medical Center in Tulsa, and then to the Anderson Burn Unit at Hillcrest Medical Center, just five minutes away.
What Brian was fighting were two life-threatening and rare syndromes associated with adverse reactions to certain medications: Toxic epidermal necrolysis (TEN), and Stevens-Johnson Syndrome (SJS). Only about six in one million develop SJS each year, and only one to two per million develop TEN. The biopsy Brian’s dermatologist, Dr. Nelson, had ordered early on had substantiated the diagnosis.
The conditions cause the skin to peel in sheets. The raw areas leak fluids and salts, and infections are both dangerous and common.
Belinda says the diagnosis was hard to make in Brian’s case because most TEN/SJS patients first experience internal symptoms, meaning the infection hits their mucus membranes, making it difficult for them to breathe, which sends them to the hospital quickly. It later reaches the skin, but by that time, treatment has been underway for a while. But for some reason, Brian’s symptoms started externally and worked their way inside.
As for what triggered the condition in Brian, Belinda says the consensus was that there was a cumulative effect of Brian’s use of over-the-counter ibuprofen and naproxen over the years, and when he was given an antibiotic to treat the suspected poison ivy, it made the TEN/SJS more complex.
Belinda, who teaches at Southside High School in Fort Smith, remembers looking around the ICU room where her husband lay. Back at home, school would be winding down. She and Brian would be planning their summer with their kids, Colton, who’d be home from Ouachita Baptist University, and Kaylynn, who’d been finishing up her junior year at Greenwood.
What a different summer this would be.
They were the kind of family who often went to the grocery store together, just to spend time with each other. When Belinda needed gasoline for her car, Brian rode shotgun, to pump her gas, and to have a few minutes alone with her.
Now, she sat in a chair, listening to the beeping sounds of the machines. “Brian was such a strong guy. Even then, I thought, he’ll be here a couple of weeks max. But things would get a little better, and they’d plummet down. Things would get better again, and they’d plummet down,” Belinda says. “It was our nightmare roller coaster, that entire eighty-two days we were there.”
Eventually, ninety-five percent of his body was burned away, the flesh beneath exposed.
Belinda feared he might die.
The battle now was not just on the surface. Brian’s kidneys, liver, heart, GI tract, and lungs were affected. He went through dialysis, took insulin, had his gall bladder removed, and had his blood pressure drop so severely he was given four medications called “pressors” to raise it.
During his time at Hillcrest, infections took hold, he went into septic shock, respiratory failure, and he was in surgery for skin grafts and wound cleaning weekly. Belinda can’t say enough about how great the staff was, pulling him through, giving him life-saving care.
By mid-June, Belinda, understandably, was exhausted. Their son, Colton, helped as much as he could, listening to the updates on his father, asking questions about treatment plans and future surgeries. The nurses grew fond of Colton, trying to convince him to change his major from Christian Studies to Medicine.
Many times, Belinda would sleep in a chair in Brian’s room, the only piece of furniture that would fit because so much medical equipment surrounded her husband’s hospital bed. She drifted off to the sound of the machines keeping Brian alive. She woke to them. She tried to remember her life before. It was hard to do.
As a member of Harvest Time in Fort Smith, she’d spent hours listening to worship music and praying, and now she relied on them both. She and Brian love their church, and the church lifted them up in prayer. Colton and his sister Kaylynn attend First Baptist of Greenwood, and that congregation fell to its knees, offering prayers for the family.
Other area churches joined in. And on Facebook, people from across the nation and from around the world, followed Brian’s story, waiting for Belinda’s updates. “I got messages daily from churches or ball teams or families and individuals saying they were praying for us. We got tons of get-well cards in the mail.
“The Southside School District sent us Visa gift cards that helped us get through the summer. The Greenwood School District took up donations; people sent money, the football team held a car-wash. The elementary school raised money. Brian’s parents came up, and the football boosters from Brian’s hometown in Benton sent donations. So many others helped. It was an outpouring of love.
“Mr. and Mrs. Gills, whose daughter Lindsey was in Brian’s P.E. class, have a townhouse that’s about five minutes from Hillcrest, and they offered it to us. I can’t thank them enough. That way my family was able to have a small taste of home.”
As Belinda says this, her voice shakes. “We almost lost Brian four times,” she says, the magnitude of the statement bringing up sharp memories. Once, after her mother- and father-in-law had left with the Sims’ daughter Kaylynn to drive back to Arkansas, Belinda had to call them back. No one was sure if Brian would last the night.
“Telling his parents and our kids that we had to make a decision was the hardest thing. He was in so much pain, and also we didn’t want him to be in agony if things weren’t looking good. That was devastating. Coach Rick Jones had driven up when he heard how bad things were, and a really good friend of mine came.
“We made the decision not to resuscitate if it came to that.” Belinda stops talking for a second; the only sound is the deep breath she takes. “And then a miracle happened, I believe because so many people were praying. Brian began to make teeny-tiny improvements. We began to see more improvements than pitfalls. We’d given it to God. I prayed a prayer that was, ‘God, I want him with me, but I don’t want him in excruciating pain, and if he’s not going to get better, then take him now and don’t make him go through the torture of this.’”
If there is a light in this part of the story, it’s that Brian remembers little of his time in Hillcrest. Belinda says he remembers flying to Tulsa—he doesn’t like planes. And he remembers a day when he was feeling well enough to toss the football around with his son, as a part of physical therapy, the sunlight soft on his face, the promise of his old life a glimmer on the horizon. Later, he remembers his players coming to visit, their faces like medicine to the coach who loves them.
While we don’’t know the reason we had to endure this crisis, we do know it has showed us the importance of faith.
On July 17, Belinda let the world know that she was bringing Brian home. The homecoming almost didn’t happen that day because when she got in her car, it wouldn’t start. Hours passed, the alternator was replaced, and finally, she drove her husband back to Arkansas, not stopping even once.
When they turned onto their street, crowds, who’d been waiting for hours, waved hand-lettered signs, and they cheered as Belinda’s car passed. Brian’s fellow coaches, his team, their friends, co-workers, family, students, even those who knew him only from his harrowing journey, raised their hands and voices to welcome him back.
The scene was the stuff of movies.
Recently, when Greenwood’s football team played Southside, where Belinda teaches, Brian and Belinda were honorary co-captains. As they stood on the fifty-yard line before the game started, the Greenwood announcer read the note Belinda took such care to write. In his booming voice, he said, in part, “There are not enough words to adequately thank everyone for what they have done for our family—we will forever be indebted to you. It is enormously powerful to feel so much love coming from school districts, churches, and the tremendously amazing people in these two communities. While we don’t know the reason we had to endure this crisis, we do know it has showed us the importance of faith. God blessed us through each and every one of you! We pray that God blesses you all as much as you have blessed us! We still have many obstacles to overcome. We face each one believing in the power of prayer and faith to get us through.”
Belinda wishes there were bigger words, better words, to let these dear people know how she feels. Try as she might, she just can’t find them.
Right now, Brian is still recovering. He goes to football practice and games as much as he can. He leans on a cane often—he has a wound on his right leg that’s still healing. He has some short-term memory issues that experts say is a common occurrence after so much time in ICU, after so many powerful drugs.
As for the TEN/SJS, there is now a flag on his medical chart to make sure he never takes any of the medications commonly associated with these syndromes.
Belinda, naturally, worries. But she also feels wrapped in the love of her Savior and sheltered by what she’s learned about prayer. Before, she thought she appreciated her life, that she understood the value of her beautiful family and the marriage that grew stronger with each passing year. Now, she knows better. There are degrees of gratitude, she’s learned. Now, she says, that gratitude seems deeper, and she believes today is just the start. Tomorrow, there will be more thankfulness and the day after even more. She expects this cycle to continue all the days of their extraordinary life.